I watched an inspired piece of team talk this week by Pep Guardiola to the Manchester City team. He said that people said to him, “Pep, you have destroyed the Premier League, you have done this and you have done that. I tell them it not’s me, it’s you, the team. You are the ones who have achieved incredible things."
In the dressing room of a successful team it is essential that you put egos to one side as we work together to build a team and we are all in this together.
Last week the disciples were having an internal argument amongst themselves about who was the greatest. The Gospels are quite hard on the disciples but they have a redeeming feature. Namely, they are honest. They don’t hide or keep silent and when their failings are brought to the forefront, then they can be faced and dealt with.
The key thing is being first in the things that matter: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
To drive home the point he picks up a little child and tells them whoever welcomes a child like this also welcomes him.
In the first-century world, as you know, children were of no account. Their parents loved them, but they had no rights, no influence, no standing. They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, and utterly powerless.
So how could caring for a child count as greatness?
It takes a bit of imagination but it is saying that greatness is not about power and wealth and fame and all the rest, but instead is measured by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others.
For the disciples who saw how the world worked with the Romans in charge they understood greatness by the standards of how things worked.
There are people who have power and influence and they tell others what to do and they want some of that for themselves.
It won’t be long before that system of domination puts Jesus to death, but now they are being offered the vision of something new.
Greatness can be defined by taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little influence or power, those, the culture is most likely to ignore.
The point is made but has it been understood? Well it seems not. The disciples think that they have put a stop to a scandal. Someone outside their group has been performing healings in Jesus’ name so they are not having it. This person is doing good not harm, but to them it is a scandal.
It is as if they are saying, “We are the disciples, not you, so please stop.” (maybe not even a please)
Earlier in the chapter they could not remove an unclean spirit from a boy and now they want to stop someone who is doing it successfully. So the text is shaped by some stark warnings against pride and elitism. If someone is for us then welcome and support them. Give them water to drink.
But, if you try and stop them, it would be better if you had a millstone tied to your neck and then have it thrown in to the sea.
This suggests that all trace of you will be lost forever.
This is how important it is to support and encourage each other.
We have to remember that we are all in this together, and this person you stopped is not only acting in my name but has a God-given ministry.
The language then becomes more extreme to drive the point home. Jesus, uses graphic, real-life, language, not to call us to engage in extreme examples of self-harm, but to make a radical point about discipleship.
In the letters of St Paul different parts of the body are used as imagery to describe the church and possibly the same analogy is in place here. St Paul deals with competiveness in the church community by saying that no part of the body is greater than the other and all are equally co-dependent.
In Mark the language is stark: if one part of the body is leading you to sin then cut it off or pluck it out. It is better to be maimed than fall into ruin.
The question is what leads us into sin or to fall short as followers of Jesus. For the disciples it seems to be bound up with status and the desire to be the greatest. They are honest about this and it is possible that similar self honesty might be required of us. This could be considered from an individual basis or maybe also a self appraisal for the church. It can be a very tough thing to do and we may not like the answers that we arrive at.
I came across an interesting statement this week and found it very helpful:
"Folks are hungry for a Christianity that mirrors Jesus, not the judgmentalism that has done more to repel than to woo people towards God's grace."
It is very easy to present the Christian message as simply being or trying to be a good person and then maybe starting to make judgements about those who fall short of the standard that has been set. Churches can be places where people can feel very uncomfortable because they don’t think they are good enough or have made too many mistakes.
People will not be drawn to God’s grace if they are made to feel unwelcome, or unworthy. People will not be drawn to God’s grace if they are made to feel they have nothing to offer or their insights and ideas are not taken seriously.
All these things are stumbling blocks and should be avoided at all costs. It is a collective responsibility of the church.
Conversely, we will be drawn to God’s grace is we hold in mind that we are all in this together and we are there to support and encourage.